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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Smokers often say they need a cigarette to calm their nerves but a British study has found that chronic stress levels may go down after a person kicks the habit.
A study of 469 smokers who tried to quit after being hospitalized for heart disease found that those who stayed away from cigarettes for a year reported a reduction in their perceived stress levels.
Stress levels were essentially unchanged among heart patients who went back to smoking, according to researchers from Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
The study, reported in the journal Addiction (here),
supported the theory that, at least for some people, smoking actually contributes to chronic stress.
"Smokers often see cigarettes as a tool to manage stress, and ex-smokers sometimes return to smoking in the belief that this will help them cope with a stressful life event," researcher Peter Hajek told Reuters Health in an email.
Yet studies have shown that non-smokers tend to report lower stress levels than smokers do.
The reason for that difference has been unclear, but it could mean that people vulnerable to stress are more likely to take up smoking.
On the other hand, smoking itself may generate long-term stress, even if people feel it offers them temporary relief from trying situations.
Hajek's study found that most of the 469 smokers -- 85 percent -- believed at the start of the study that smoking helped them deal with stress to some extent. Half said that the habit "very much" helped them cope.
But one year later, the study participants were surveyed again at which point 41 percent had not returned to smoking.
On average, Hajek and his colleagues found the abstainers showed a 20 percent reduction in their reported stress levels, while patients who had gone back to smoking showed little change in their perceived stress. The relationship between abstinence and reduced stress held up when the researchers accounted for factors such as patients' age and education, how heavily they had smoked before quitting, and how high their stress scores were at the start of the study.
The researchers said the findings support the idea that dependency on cigarettes is itself a chronic source of stress.
"When dependent smokers cannot smoke, as the period without cigarettes lengthens they tend to feel more and more edgy, irritable and uncomfortable," Hajek said. "A cigarette relieves this stressful state, and this is probably the main reason smokers think that smoking relieves stress."
Someone who smokes 20 cigarettes per day, for example, essentially goes through 20 bouts of stress each day, as the levels of nicotine in the body decline. Once that person quits -- and gets over the initial period of withdrawal -- he will have 20 fewer periods of stress each day, Hajek said.
Hajek said these findings suggested that quitting may not only benefit smokers' physical health, but possibly their mental well-being as well.
Reporting by Amy Norton, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith